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Mobtown Beat

Illegalize It?

Scientists Oppose Legislation That Potentially Disrupts Medical Research

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Roland Griffiths (left) and Matthew W. Johnson (right) say a proposed state law banning salvia divinorum could disrupt drug research.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 2/11/2009

Making legal stuff illegal is pretty much what legislating is all about, and so it was probably inevitable that the Maryland legislature would take up something like SB 9, "An Act concerning Criminal Law %u2013 Salvia Divinorum %u2013 Controlled Dangerous Substances."

Salvia, also called "diviner's sage," is a plant that, when smoked or chewed, causes altered perceptions. It is available over the internet and in places like the Karmic Connection on South Broadway in Baltimore City. If you type the name into YouTube's search box you'll get numerous videos of teenagers laughing uproariously and saying stupid stuff--same as if you type almost anything else into YouTube's search box.

There are two other important things to know about Salvia. First, which dominates many people's thinking about it, is that 17-year-old Brett Chidester, a Delaware honors student, killed himself in 2006, and the Delaware Medical Examiner added Salvia as a "contributing factor" in his death after the report was first filed, for reasons never explained. The result has been a series of state laws mostly banning the sale or possession of Salvia. In Delaware, it's called "Brett's Law." Last year, Baltimore City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway introduced a bill to ban Salvia sales and possession in Baltimore City (Councilmania, Mobtown Beat, Feb. 6, 2008). The bill did not pass.

The second thing to know is that, in the human brain, Salvia does not bind to any of the neuroreceptors formerly associated with hallucinogens. That's a fact most people do not know or understand, according to Matthew W. Johnson.

With his research partner, Roland R. Griffiths, Johnson studies the effects of drugs on people's experiences and on behavior, looking for clues about how the brain works--and how it changes when a person, say, becomes addicted to heroin. Griffiths is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, and Johnson is an instructor, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; the pair have worked with otherwise-illegal drugs before ("Sacred Intentions," Feature, Oct. 8, 2008). As with their work with psilocybin, aka "magic mushrooms," the researchers say Salvia offers promise.

"This is a really exciting compound," Johnson says of Salvia. "A derivative might be used as a medication--maybe as a cocaine abuse inhibitor."

Hearing "at the last minute" about the bill introduction by state Sen. Richard F. Colburn (R-Eastern Shore), the Hopkins researchers e-mailed a technical paper to the legislators in which they noted that the bill as drafted, allowing for research use of the substance only with a waiver from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, put them in a Catch-22. "Salvia Divinorum is not listed as a Federal Schedule I substance, and therefore it is not possible for a provider to be registered under federal law to conduct research with Salvia Divinorum," the paper explains.

A senate staffer says the researchers needn't worry. "Everyone was so concerned about research," says Katrina Owens, Colburn's senate aid. "The bottom line is that medical research will always go forward. The senator said he encouraged an amendment so that research could proceed."

During a Jan. 27 hearing, the bill received a lukewarm reception from Sen. Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery County), who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Several senators spoke skeptically of it, and the Maryland Office of the Public Defender sent a statement arguing against the bill. Kathleen E. Chidester, Brett's mother, sent an impassioned letter in favor, and Robert Bokinsky, an Ocean City police captain, told the lawmakers that much of the disorderly conduct he sees on the boardwalk is linked to Salvia use by teenagers who buy it in the shops there.

"I wish they would have been here," Owens says of the Hopkins researchers. "It would have been great to hear from them." But she sounds keen to push the law forward in some form, citing "one homicide in Houston that they're attributing Salvia to," plus a load of You Tube videos. "You don't have to be a teen, you could be a young adult. It could be a gateway drug to cocaine," Owens says.

That's the attitude the Hopkins researchers are trying to combat. They're fine with an age ban or even a sales ban, Johnson says, but lawmakers need to maintain some perspective, since making Salvia a "schedule 1" drug such as heroin, even with research provisions, would stop most research.

"The DEA wants you to put it in a bank vault," Johnson says of schedule 1 drugs. He's equipped to do that, but he says researchers in states where Salvia is banned have had to stop studying it. The ban contemplated by the state legislature would also outlaw derivative compounds of Salvia, potentially killing their commercial viability, he says.

"Not to discount the fact that there can be dangers" with Salvia use, Johnson says, "but from a public-health perspective this is very small on the radar screen. At state level, and previously at city level, it seems we have well-intentioned legislators perhaps basing their concern on You Tube videos and Google searches."

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